In Review: 'Knock at the Cabin'
In adapting Paul G. Tremblay's horror novel about a home invasion with apocalyptic implications, M. Night Shyamalan challenges mainstream audiences. But only to a point.
Knock at the Cabin
Dir. M. Night Shyamalan
Paul G. Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World has the compact quality of a short story, twisting the premise of a home invasion thriller into a grim, white-knuckle acceleration to doomsday. Its audacious story about a family that almost literally stands at the precipice of global collapse makes the apocalypse personal, challenging its characters to make the ultimate sacrifice to save mankind—and whether such a choice is even cosmically just to leave in their hands. Tremblay compromises nothing, to the point where the book should be classified more as horror than thriller or pressure-cooker drama, because he wants the situation to feel visceral where it might be abstract.
At a certain point in his otherwise tense and crisply orchestrated adaptation, Knock at the Cabin, M. Night Shyamalan has to slam on the brakes, as if he’s playing a losing game of chicken with Tremblay’s oncoming car. He can’t entirely be blamed for it: Turning this book into a movie is a commercially dodgy proposition to say the least, and going all the way with it risks a CinemaScore somewhere between “F” and a full-scale riot at the multiplex. Yet the changes he makes to the material are nonetheless damaging to its integrity, eventually landing on a Hollywood ending that feels like a half-measure—still bleak yet mushy and pseudo-spiritual, a narrative no man’s land.
The Reveal is a reader-supported newsletter dedicated to bringing you great essays, reviews and conversation about movies. While both free and paid subscriptions are available, please consider a paid subscription to support our long-term sustainability
But getting there is often tremendously compelling, with Shyamalan returning to the formal brio of his best work in order to give this single-setting drama the intensity it requires. At a vacation rental spot deep in the Massachusetts woods—deep enough to be out of cell phone tower range, of course—Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) bring their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) for a relaxing weekend. As Wen is out front catching crickets, she’s approached by a gentle giant named Leonard (Dave Bautista), who claims sincerely that he wants to be her friend before asking to speak to her parents. Wen is scared by this ominous request, which becomes more threatening still when three other strangers approach the cabin with odd, hand-tooled weapons.
When Leonard and his associates finally break in, the family is so terrified that they couldn’t possibly be receptive to his message, which would still seem insane over a friendly glass of wine and charcuterie. Leonard tells them that he and the others, who come from different areas of the country, share the same vivid and startlingly specific vision of the apocalypse. Over the next series of hours, the world will end bit by bit, through various earthquakes and plagues and other disasters of unknown origin. And the only way it can be stopped is if Eric, Andrew, or Wen make a choice to sacrifice one of them to save humanity. And the sacrifice cannot be done by their own hand.
Naturally, Eric and Andrew come to the quick conclusion that these home invaders must be members of a death cult, but cable television still works out in the sticks and there’s mounting evidence that what they’re saying might be true. For Shyamalan, who’s drawn to high-concept ideas like a floating cartoon character to pie on the windowsill, Knock at the Cabin must have seemed like the ultimate get-them-talking conversation piece. Would you be willing to kill a member of your family to stop the world from dying? (Cue a miserable ride home from the theater in the station wagon, followed by dad sleeping on the couch.) Shyamalan has to answer that question—he’s trapped in a corner as much as Eric and Andrew are—but he backs away from it as far as possible.
What’s left touches on themes of family and parenthood that have been central to Shyamalan’s career since The Sixth Sense and Signs, which here seem especially resonant at a time when adults are raising children to confront threats from climate change, pandemics, and other extinction-level events. Knock at the Cabin reaches its limits there, too, but the weak dismount doesn’t blunt all of its power, particularly Bautista’s performance as Leonard, which should be enough to separate the actor from his beefy ex-WWE peers. Bautista projects unwavering sincerity while having to carry out acts of madness and violence, and he makes Leonard both a tragic and terrifying figure at the same time. He genuinely wants to be Wen’s friend. He knows it’s a sickening impossibility. — Scott Tobias
Knock at the Cabin opens tonight at theaters everywhere.
That Shyamalan is “drawn to high-concept ideas like a floating cartoon character to pie on the windowsill” made me laugh out loud.
Shyamalan remarkably good at conjuring up dread, and it terrible shame he only seem to write or adapt stories that stomp all over fine line between clever and stupid. Me would have liked to see him direct one of Harry Potters, where he could provide atmospherics and brisk storytelling but not actually have to be one to tell story.
Anyway, it has been joy to see Bautista grow as actor over last few years, and me excited to see him start to get roles with more depth. That being said, me also sad he not seem to want to do more Guardians of Galaxy, as he always kills it as Drax.